'A huge win' for English school boards: Court strikes down parts of Quebec's Bill 40
A group representing English-language school boards in Quebec is applauding a Superior Court judgment that struck down several sections of the province's controversial Bill 40.
In a ruling issued Wednesday, Justice Sylvain Lussier said English school boards in Quebec have the right to manage their own schools and that the bill went too far to try to abolish them.
Bill 40 was adopted in the National Assembly in 2020 and turned the school boards into school service centres. Less than six months later, parts of the bill that applied to English boards were suspended by Quebec Superior Court while a legal challenge made its way through the court.
After hearing the case on its merits, the court ruled in favour of the English school boards by striking down parts of the law.
"We are extremely pleased that our rights to control and manage our school have been recognized and respected with this decision," said Russell Copeman, executive director of the Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA), one of the groups that launched the legal challenge.
"We hope that the Government of Quebec will decide not to appeal this clear decision that is, again, a clear victory for the control and management rights of the English-speaking community, based on section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms."
Questions to the Ministry of Education were referred to the Ministry of Justice, which told CTV News that it would need some time to review the decision before deciding whether the government will appeal.
Justice Lussier wrote in a 125-page ruling that certain sections of the government's bill violated the Charter, including the requirement that only parent representative becomes chair or vice chair of a school service centre board of director.
"The court concludes … that eliminating more than 90% of potential candidates for the position of commissioner or councillor does not constitute a 'minimal' interference with the right to stand as a candidate," the ruling stated.
"The Tribunal finds that the infringement of the rights of the English-speaking minority and section 23 rights holders is not justified."
The judge also struck down other requirements in the law, such as the presence of unelected staff members on the council and the establishment of budgetary measures sent directly from the education ministry to schools -- bypassing the school board.
On the latter point, Copeman pointed to an example during the pandemic in which English school boards made the decision to install air purifiers, whereas many French school service centres didn't because the government didn't think it was necessary.
The ruling also struck down provisions that would have placed unelected staff members on boards, as well as a rule that stipulated that a service centre's director general — a staff member — be designated as official spokesperson.
The lengthy judgment emphasized that governments, including provincial legislatures, have "an obligation" to take into account the needs and concerns of linguistic minority rights when enacting legislation and imposing decisions.
"Indeed, the Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized that decisions affecting linguistic minorities must be made in their interests, in response to their needs," the ruling said.
"The record shows that the Quebec legislator did not sufficiently take into account the needs, demands or concerns of the English-speaking minority and its representatives. Rather, the evidence establishes that he did not in any way attempt to identify what these needs were, that he did not seriously seek their opinion, that he did not take them into account when he was given them and that he considerably limited the possibilities of asserting them."
- Listen on CJAD 800: 'It’s a huge win for all English school boards across Quebec': EMSB pleased with ruling on Bill 40
Copeman said the court's ruling "solidifies" the notion that there is a certain degree of autonomy and independence within the English-language education system in Quebec.
English Montreal School Board (EMSB) chair Joe Ortona hailed Justice Lussier's defence of minority language rights in Wednesday's ruling.
"It's a huge win for the EMSB but really for the English School Boards Association. It's a win for all English school boards across Quebec," Ortona said in an interview with CJAD 800.
Ortona said he would "fight the good fight" to uphold the rights enshrined in section 23 of the Charter if the government launches an appeal.
In Wednesday's judgment, Lussier declined to strike down some of the articles that had been challenged, including a rule that school service centres must facilitate the sharing of resources with each other and other public bodies, as well as another that allows ministers to determine objectives or targets.
With files from The Canadian Press